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It’s Time to Get Your Head in the Clouds

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Most of us have been told as children to, “Get your head out of the clouds!” But with new technology like cloud computing, it’s time to ignore that advice and get your head into the cloud.

Cloud computing is changing the way companies do business, but many people still don’t know what the cloud is or how it can help them. There’s a lot of talk about being in the cloud without much explanation of what that means.

Luckily the idea of cloud computing is not complicated. Some people may be kept away because it can be intimidating to learn and understand new technologies. But for those willing to take the leap, using cloud technology can mean money saved and more operational efficiency.

A growing number of small business owners are recognizing the benefits of the cloud and more than 20 percent of small businesses in the U.S. use the cloud, with an estimated 60 percent moving to the cloud in the next three years. One of the hurdles to more widespread adoption is many business owners still don’t know the cloud’s benefits or how to get started.

What is the Cloud?

Essentially the cloud is the Internet. It’s as simple as that. The term “cloud” is used as a way to think about the Internet and cloud computing is using the many services available through the web. The three main services in this virtual space are software, infrastructure and platforms.

You may have heard of SaaS without knowing what it was. SaaS, or Software-as-a-Service, is often the way people get into the cloud, sometimes without even realizing they are using the cloud. SaaS directly delivers programs and applications to the end user via the Internet. Instead of storing a program on a CD or some other storage device, which is then installed and stored locally on the user’s computer, the program hosts the software elsewhere and delivers it online to the user.

One thing that many companies find most attractive about SaaS is that they don’t have to invest a lot of capital up front. SaaS providers let companies use as much software as they need with the easy ability to scale up or down as needed. This lets companies pay for the software over time through a monthly cost. Examples of SaaS vendors include Salesforce.com, Constant Contact and GoToMeeting.

Cloud computing has been growing in popularity, and the influx of SaaS providers has not been far behind. SaaS has become a very competitive space, and it’s wise to research which vendors are most trustworthy before selecting one. So many companies have come into the marketplace that, Comcast has created a cloud-based marketplace, Upware, as a resource for hosted applications from providers including Box, Carbonite, Microsoft and Norton.

Another business bonus is Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), which meets business hardware needs for things such as storage capacity, bandwidth and server needs. This way businesses get the hardware they need without having to buy or maintain the actual equipment. Clients get to pay for what they use and the IaaS vendor owns the hardware and has to do the heavy lifting like storing and running servers and other physical equipment.
The third main service category is Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), which allows companies to create applications or software using tools or libraries from a provider. This lets customers create custom apps quickly without have to worry about buying or managing hardware and software, or worrying about hosting capabilities. Company web sites are the most common application using this type of service.

How Does the Cloud Help?

While the cloud is helpful for businesses of all sizes, one of its biggest impacts is leveling the playing field for small businesses. They now have access to sophisticated software they previously would never have been able to afford.

In a Harvard Business Review blog post, MIT research scientist Andrew McAfee says of the cloud, “It’s as inevitable and irreversible as the shift from steam to electric power in manufacturing. Just as that transition brought many benefits and opened up new possibilities to factory owners, so too will the cloud confer advantages on its adopters.”

Cloud computing is changing the fundamentals of how business operates in several significant ways. Probably the most obvious difference is accessibility. The cloud gives businesses of all sizes access to sophisticated software. Not only is the software often more sophisticated, the cost is lower. Service costs are based on consumption so the barrier to using SaaS is much lower.

One of the other advantages is scalability. There’s no need to worry about technology going out of date or how business changes will affect IT. Customers can react quickly with cloud computing to changes in technology or other IT needs. Businesses can respond in real time, adding or subtracting capacity, services or users as needed.

And when it comes down to one of the most important technological challenges for businesses today, the cloud is a huge help. With cloud computing, safety and security is attainable for everyone. Using the cloud, business can access files and data round the clock, no matter the circumstances, with the peace of mind that cloud computing brings.

How Do I Get in the Cloud?

Because cloud computing can make things so easy, one of the big temptations is to rush ahead. Before that happens, be sure to consider a few things as you decide.

• Evaluate and assess more than one service before making a decision. When possible, take advantage of free trials that let you best assess the service’s capabilities.

• Don’t feel like you have to jump in with both feet. It’s okay to test the waters and build familiarity with cloud computing before using it for all business needs. If you’re a Comcast Business Class customer, you already have access to hosted Microsoft Exchange as part of your Internet package.

• As cloud vendors are the ones providing the management, hosting and other services, it’s critical to make sure there’s adequate customer support. Find a company that offers a strong support team to assist you with issue diagnosis.

• Read provider agreements closely. Most services come with a service agreement, which you sign at the beginning. Read carefully and make sure you understand what you will pay, what services you receive and whether there are early termination fees.
Don’t let these words of advice scare you off. You should be cautious approaching any big business decision, but cloud services are so quickly becoming the norm that you’ll soon realize the benefits.

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